Musil Part Two
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on January 22 2019
There is now a quite definite nobody-knows-what in the air. Robert Musil
In my previous article, I wondered what the author of The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil, who called himself Le Vivisecteur, would have made of the Brexit farrago (the word has no etymological connection with one of the architects of Brexit, Nigel Farage). Translating the “will of the people” for the UK to leave the EU into practical action is proving problematic. Musil wrote: “Ideas can never maintain themselves in the state in which they are most powerful; they’re like the kind of substance that, exposed to the air, instantly changes into some other, more lasting, but corrupted form.”
People are confused and their elected representatives are compounding that confusion. I cannot help but feel that the UK electorate must feel that they are regarded in the same way as Musil’s Count Leinsdorf regarded people: “His Grace was far from thinking that other people were stupid, even if he did think himself more intelligent than they were, and he could not comprehend why all these intelligent people taken together made such a poor impression on him. Indeed, life as a whole made this impression on him”. Musil wrote: “In the old days, people felt as it were deductively, starting from certain assumptions. Those days are gone. Today, we live without a guiding principle, but also without any method of conscious, inductive thinking; we simply go on trying this and that like a band of monkeys.” He also wrote: “man’s deepest social instinct is his antisocial instinct.”
On January 16 2019, the UK government survived a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. They won by a margin of only ten votes. There are ten MPs from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party who support the government (when it suits them) after being bribed to do so by Theresa May. It was interesting to see that friend of Sri Lanka, Ian Paisley Jr smirking smugly among his Neanderthal colleagues. He has finished his stint on the naughty step after being caught out taking bribes from the Rajapaksa government.
The DUP, whose ten MPs supported May on January 16 as required by their confidence and supply agreement, boasted afterwards that DUP backing was the difference between victory and defeat for the Tories. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds reminded May that she had only survived because of his party’s votes and that the price of his continued support was a hard Brexit plus more from that money tree that she said does not exist.
May and her supporters seemed to regard this as a great triumph, even though just a day earlier, her Brexit agreement was rejected by the biggest margin in parliamentary history. The DUP MPs all voted against the government on this occasion. I watched most of the debate as it happened and it was quite a surreal experience. One MP quoted Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit, Heroic Failure. In my column last week, I was smug about the fact that I had finished reading The Man without Qualities when Fintan had heroically failed to do so. It took me fifty years, but hey. I noticed that The London Guardian’s political sketch writer, John Crace also refenced Musil: “Those who had spent the morning working on decommissioning her (May’s) memory had done a decent job. She had already blanked out just how crap she was. She was proud to be the woman without qualities.”
Musil would have been interested in the way outside reality did not impinge on the debate. “For vagueness has an elevating and magnifying power”. Labour and Scottish Nationalist MPs had a go at criticizing the parlous condition of ordinary people and I am sure their compassion was sincere. Conservatives painted a mythical picture of the huge improvements the government had wrought in everyone’s lives. They probably believed it. Every so often, all parties lapsed back into the clubbish banter of an institution alien to those watching from the outside. Musil: “The general obsession with turning every viewpoint into a standpoint and regarding every standpoint as a viewpoint”
There was lot about stale, arcane procedures. When faced with direct questions from journalists, politicians from all sides reverted to meaningless formulae and cant phrases. Musil: “This fearful activity stems from the single fact that people have nothing to do. Inwardly, I mean. But even outwardly, in the last analysis, everyone spends his whole life repeating the same thing over and over: he gets into some occupation and then goes on with it”. No one really seemed to be connecting with the awful disaster looming ever closer. Musil had words for this phenomenon: “We’re left floating around on relationships, processes, on the dirty dishwater of processes and formulas, on something we can’t even recognize as a thing, a process, a ghost of an idea, of a God-knows-what. Under such a crust the living soul itself hardens.”
Thriving on Humiliation
May has suffered a number of humiliating defeats and pyrrhic victories but she is still bright-eyed and optimistic. The EU has said there will be no more negotiation. May’s agreement with the EU was rejected by 432 votes to 202. Nearly 120 Conservative MPs voted against their leader in that vote. In the vote of no confidence in her as leader of the Conservative Party 117 of her MPs voted against her but she saw that as a victory.
Musil: “When something is happening every minute, it is easy to imagine that one is actually getting real things done… even on those days when one wasn’t doing anything in particular, there were so many things one had to guard against doing that one had the sense of being kept frantically busy at all times…everything depends on only a few simple principles, but above all on a firm will and well-planned activity.”
I am in London and see that people are getting on with their normal lives – what else can they do? Musil: “There is always something ghostly about living constantly in a well-ordered state. You cannot step into the street or drink a glass of water or get on a streetcar without touching the balanced levers of a gigantic apparatus of laws and interrelations, setting them in motion or letting them maintain you in your peaceful existence; one knows hardly any of these levers, which reach deep into the inner workings and, coming out the other side, lose themselves in a network whose structure has never yet been unraveled by anyone.” Will there be an unraveling?